Your brand story is the thread that ties you to your audience. Like any captivating tale, it strikes a chord with readers when they hear echoes of themselves in the adventure. At least, that’s what your brand story should be. Unfortunately for many companies, the reality is far from this fairy tale. More often than not, a brand sits stubbornly at the center of its own story. And a brand-centric narrative will always stop you from spinning more compelling stories.
Think of Anna’s love interests in Disney’s Frozen franchise. Your brand might want to be Kristoff Bjorgman, the savior who wins her affection with expertise and quirky charmm but in reality, many brands come off like Hans Westergaard, hell-bent on furthering a selfish agenda at the expense of others.
The fundamental question is this: Is your brand getting in the way of its own story?
Lost in the Woods: Inspiring Allegiance
We’re living in the age of consumer disloyalty. A Nielsen study recently reported that a meager 8 percent of customers consider themselves deeply committed to any brands. It’s tempting to chalk this up to a plethora of choices and relentless competition, but what if the real reason is that few brands are giving customers much incentive to cast their lot with them?
Your brand should be more like a storyteller than a salesman. If you’re not inviting your customers to participate in the narrative, you’re just selling a product. You’ll only grab their attention — and their money — for a fleeting moment. If all you tell customers is some form of, “Give us your money, and we’ll make you happy,” you shouldn’t be surprised when they follow the siren song of a competitor humming the same tune. But you may get different results with a different story.
Authentic storytelling — the kind with genuine conflict and resolution — isn’t about engaging in an information transaction. It resonates at the level of emotions, values and even identity. It calls out customers as participants, or even stars, in creating something meaningful. If you want to form a lasting relationship with your audience, you’ll follow Kristoff’s lead and win adoration and trust by putting the customer first.
Into the Unknown: Finding Your Narrative
Creating loyal customers through a compelling story is challenging, but it doesn’t need to be complicated. To build a stronger bond, follow these examples:
1. Simplify your story.
Customers can’t see themselves in your story if they can’t figure out what’s going on, yet many brands seem intent on confusing instead of connecting. “Businesses sometimes protect their egos inside of big, complex words to illustrate how sophisticated their products are,” says Mike Spakowski, principal and creative director of Atomicdust, a branding and digital agency. “It happens at the expense of clarity.”
In contrast, take Airbnb and its unambiguous message of belonging. There’s nothing overcomplicated about it. Instead, it tugs at a universal desire for connection and community, clearly situating the brand and its customers in that simple story. If your customer can’t retell your story simply and succinctly, don’t put that red pen away just yet.
From the marketer’s perspective, the beauty of the “belong anywhere” message is that both brand and customer are essential players. When Airbnb rebranded in 2014 and launched the concept, it went one step further to situate customers in the narrative by developing a free interactive component that allowed customers to design their own version of the so-called Bélo logo. The whole rebrand was designed to enable customers to internalize the recurring brand story, namely: Each time you travel, you experience loneliness and a sense of displacement, but with Airbnb, you can belong anywhere. It’s that simple.
2. Make your customer the hero.
Good products and services are invented to solve an identified problem. Often, that can lead marketers to position a brand as the hero of its story. A much more impactful narrative imbues heroism on its audience, compelling a customer to take up the mantle and act. Consider the noninvasive prenatal testing (NIPT) market. As average maternal age increases, babies are at greater risk of chromosomal abnormalities, which can be identified by genetic tests. In week 10, for example, a baby is the size of a strawberry. It’s also the first possible week that NIPT solutions can detect genetic health risks like Edwards Syndrome. But the product cannot be the savior in this story.
When Illumina wanted to get the word out about its noninvasive genetic-screening options, it launched a campaign with The Bloc, a health-creative agency, that positioned customers as heroic information-seekers. The NIPT campaign repurposed the familiar fruit-to-baby size comparison to show expecting parents what genetic insights they could get at each stage of pregnancy and what treatment could then be sought. To illustrate the heroism of your brand’s customers, speak to your audience in terms of identity. Consider what might make someone a great parent, teacher or engineer, and show how your product or service enables a person to be the superhero version of herself.
Related: 5 Blueprints for Your Brand’s Story
3. Reflect your audience’s values.
If a story makes a lasting impression, it bleeds beyond the boundaries of its own places and characters to illustrate bigger truths and point to higher values. The best brand stories must do this as well. According to new research by Edelman, 53 percent of consumers believe that companies need to support at least one cause that doesn’t directly benefit their bottom line.
REI takes its brand identity — one its customers passionately share — seriously in this regard. In 2019, for the fifth year in a row, the company closed its doors on Black Friday and paid its employees for the hours. But this time, it called its tribe to join in on its Opt to Act campaign. By inviting customers to participate in 52 weeks of challenges to “reduce your impact, get active and leave the world better than you found it,” REI reaffirms a long-standing narrative that’s about much more than profits.
How does your story reflect the deeply held values, concerns and dreams of your audience? Identifying those is key to drawing your customers into a story that’s bigger than themselves or your company. Anyone can tune out a sales pitch, even a good one. But not many can ignore a great story they personally identify with. As you craft your brand narrative, keep Kristoff’s perspective in mind: “This is not about me!”